The celebration in honor of a well-known essayist’s ninetieth birthday was held on the Saturday following his birthdate. A Saturday amidst the blistering heat of a northeastern July, an uptick in Covid-19 infections, fires in the west and in Europe, reports of a monkeypox outbreak among gay men, and news of the Pope’s visit to Canada to apologize for the church’s treatment of indigenous children.
Lily, the essayist’s wife, planned the celebration, addressed, stamped, and mailed the invitations, using names she gathered from the essayists address book.
Full vaccination required. No gifts. Regrets only. The invitation said and was signed simply in a firm hand, Lily.
At four, the room had filled with guests. The invitation had said, ‘four ‘til seven.’ Anyone who knew the essayist for any length of time had surely known that he was punctual and expected punctuality. He always made his expectations clear. He was a Marine.
He often told me, “If you’re on time, you’re late.” I took him figuratively though he meant it quite literally. “How does that work?” I’d ask him. “It just does,” he’d say.
No one spoke about the heat, or the pandemic, or the hearings on television, wearing masks, abortion, inflation, gasoline prices, Ukraine, or the media. All of that, they knew, was the essayists bailiwick. They found other things to talk about.
Prosecco in stemware and small hors d’oeuvres were passed on silver trays by young men and women wearing collared white shirts and black pants. The music from the speakers in the dining area set aside for the gathering was loud and conversation became difficult. Names were hard to hear.
“Guernsey?” I repeated, not really believing that could be the woman’s last name.
“No, it’s Gert Seavey,” she said.
I sat in a seat beside Lily. The essayist sat next to her at the head of the table. His three sons were there, sitting at another table. He looked over at them often.
After the dinner plates were removed, Lily stood and nodded to her three boys. The first one, the oldest, the one who had come in late, was the first to stand and speak.
““I just flew in from Paris, and the plane was late.”
“We all can see that,” said his father.
“I’m happy to be here, Dad,” said his son. “I have only one word to say to all of you that epitomizes my father best. Forgiveness.” Then he sat down. There was applause.
“Thank you,” said his father, so softly that only those of us closest to him could hear.
The second son spoke anecdotally, and then the essayist’s granddaughter raised her hand. “I love you, Boppa,” she said, “you are the smartest, funniest, and greatest man ever in the world.”
Her grandfather bowed his head. “Thank you,” he said to her.
Lily looked to the third son. He shook his head and didn’t get up, and so she walked to the end of the room, where it was the quietest. She asked the waiter to stop pouring wine.
She stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, and, because the curtains had not been drawn, she appeared briefly in silhouette surrounded in a halo of white light and seemed like a dark apparition in a dream or an afterimage following the sudden appearance of the Madonna.
She asked for quiet in a voice as soft as a dove and she turned to her husband, whose smile we all could see. From a pocket in her light-colored flowered dress, she read from notes she had written. She recounted how they had met and all of her husband’s many accomplishments in life and then she asked the essayist to come forward, and she kissed him on the cheek as they passed and returned to her seat at the table.
“That’s my first wife,” he said. “I always say that.”
The room quieted.
“You all know I have a tendency to be somewhat long-winded.”
“Nooohhh, Dad,” his sons said in unison.
“Please put your phones down and pay attention,” he said to us all.
He spoke without notes.
“There’s a line from Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, with an “E”, it goes something like ‘we can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire–a brain, a heart, a spirit.’”
“I dreamt last night that there are two paths forward for humans on earth. This earth, where we were born, where we live, and where we will die. The two paths are not mutually exclusive. And neither path is one that does our species credit.
“The vast majority of us are on a path we have no control over. Nine-nine percent of us, are on a path headed back in time to life at its most basic. Sweating in toil, planting the crops that will grow in the narrowing bit of land suitable for them, hunting what animals survive, and gathering the little water we need to live.
“Our disregard for water will be our undoing. Drought and flood and fires have already begun. You see it all around you. While corporations and governments husband our most essential natural resource for whatever profit they can make and power they can wield. We are watching the demise of most of what is human existence. We have set a rapidly degenerative system in motion by our lack of regard for the needs of society. One another. We have lost our social conscience.
“We had long survived as a species because we evolved as social animals. We need one another. But what we have done in the last two hundred years, as a result of our self-centered greed and avarice and our disregard for one another, has set us on a downward spiral which will consume us. Through starvation, drowning, unbearable temperature extremes, and the wars that will erupt and eliminate the rest of us, along with almost every other living species.
“We have brought this upon ourselves because we have not paid attention. We saw what was happening and we said that was somebody else’s problem and we kept on making plastic and burning oil and coal. How brutally ironic is it, is it not, that the lives of past plants and animals that inhabited this earth for millions of years before us, their very carbon souls, are what we are burning, and which will bury us and crush us under intense heat and unimaginable pressure back into carbon chains again, and that is all that will be left of us.
“It did not have to be this way. We have willfully disregarded the wisdom of the past generations who lived in concert with the land and the water and who were swept away by our greed and our guns and the rape of our natural resources. We laughed at their ignorant simplicity. Their traditions. We failed to learn from them and their respect for the mysterious power of nature.
“On the second, more narrow path, some few will survive. They will be the ones who had the privilege and resources unavailable to the rest. They may survive in small enclaves into a temporary future, perhaps using advanced AI computing and multidimensional printers to engineer some semblance of artificial nutrition and a livable environment.
But, surely, around them both, the earth and nature will heal itself, perhaps creating a natural re-arrangement of our DNA with the DNA and RNA from which we all came, and life on earth will go on. The Anthropocene epoch will end and surely, with it, other species will fill the gap.
“As Wolfe once said, you can’t go home again, and we cannot. Not when you have burned your home to embers and released the fumes into the atmosphere to smother you.
“So, pay attention. Love your family. Love one another. Love the life you have while you have it. Heal the earth in any way you can. Return to the simple life on the earth that created us in any way you can. Honor it. Eschew the false and artificial and disingenuous.
“That’s all there is and that’s all I have to say. Thank you for coming.”
And then the cake was plated and served. Coffee was poured. The essayist sat beside his wife and drank a glass of milk and then we said our goodbyes and went to our cars and drove back to our homes.